I Am Not My illness is a series highlighting people living with complex disorders and their self-identity, passions and interests.
Anonymous, as told to Nicole Naimer
Mental illness first swallowed me whole at 12 years old in the form of anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. I just stopped eating. It wasn’t out of a conscious effort for me to lose weight, but it was just a way for me to cope with my emotions. I remember trying to get schoolwork done but instead drawing black lines all over the page – my brain wasn’t working properly.
I had no self-awareness of what was going on. I didn’t learn about mental illness at school. It was like my perception of the world was distorted by jaundice-coloured glasses, making everything around me seem cloudy and murky. I felt like I was drowning, trying to swim but unable to get a breath of air.
I bounced around from a group home for youth with mental illness and a youth psychiatric ward throughout my early teens.
Stigma hit me like a ton of bricks – thrown upon me by my middle-school gym teacher. She saw my self-harm scars, and instead of being met with empathy or even concern, I was scolded. Even at home I didn’t receive the care I needed; my mom saw the scars and handed me a cream to remove scarring instead of lending me emotional support. These small interactions had a big impact on my perception of my own illness and my hesitancy to open up to others.
When my gym teacher saw my scars, I saw the fear in her eyes. I knew my experience of mental illness was scary and I didn’t want to burden more people. That’s how I felt about my self-harm as an early teen and how I still feel about disclosing my psychosis.
At 16, I was diagnosed with bipolar II, which accounted for my hypomanic episodes. I also started experiencing psychotic symptoms, which were dismissed by my own line of thinking and the health-care workers around me. I was generally high functioning, and that gave professionals a false sense that everything was all right.
I experienced psychosis on and off for four years: undiagnosed and untreated. I was 20 when I finally got the diagnosis of bipolar I, which accounts for full blown mania and psychosis.
I remember my first encounter with psychosis was walking through a dark park and thinking I was being followed. Then I saw the trees falling down around me. Obviously, the trees were not actually falling, but to me it felt so real. That walk through the dark park is extremely vivid in my memory. It was a visceral experience.
When in psychosis, I’m typically paranoid that people are following me and watching me from windows with the intent to kill me. I’ve heard people in the house when they are not actually there. I’ve believed that someone implanted a chip in my arm, and that belief was so strong I wanted to physically cut out a piece of my arm.
The scariest part of psychosis for me is not knowing if I could trust my own brain.
People in psychosis are more likely to harm themselves than others. When in psychosis, I’m scared, not malicious.
When in psychosis, I’m scared, not malicious.
At 16, I was seeing a psychiatrist from a crisis unit. She typically saw people for around 12 weeks. I remember her telling me she wouldn’t see me anymore because I was no longer a crisis patient – I wasn’t “sick enough.” I felt that I owed her something if she kept seeing me, like I wasn’t worthy of her care. That had a lasting impression of me being a burden and not deserving of a professional’s time.
After her care, I was left without help. I stopped taking my medications because the side effects were horrible, and I had no encouragement to keep going with it. It took my family doctor seeing me completely inundated by depression and psychosis to be referred to a psychiatrist who would finally provide me with continued care.
At 18, I overdosed, not because I wanted to die, but because I was too ashamed to walk into the hospital and ask for help. It took a physical manifestation of a mental illness to be taken more seriously.
I’m a student at a large Ontario university, and while there are supports, they’re just very difficult to access, and even more difficult when you’re struggling. I luckily have a great accessibility advisor, but I’ve had peers email their accessibility advisor without hearing back for months.
During my first year of university, I requested an extension from my professor due to a hospitalization. He assumed I was hospitalized for mental illness, and I was cornered into admitting so even though I wasn’t ready to disclose that information. He told me I didn’t belong in the class, and I wasn’t treated very nicely for the rest of the semester.
I feel very lucky to now be supported by my therapist, social worker and psychiatrist. They have been integral to accessing treatments to live with bipolar disorder instead of having the illness take over. However, when I encounter new settings like the emergency room, it takes tremendous efforts of self-advocacy to be taken seriously.
My experience with bipolar disorder and psychosis has given me something to be very passionate about – becoming a psychiatrist. From my personal experience in the health-care system, I have insight into what makes a good physician and I hope to use my experience to help others with similar struggles.
I am more than just a girl with bipolar disorder. I am a yoga instructor and I love teaching classes. I am an undergraduate student studying health studies. I play the violin and I grew up racing triathlons. I’m a friend, a daughter and a sister.
I have experienced the deep dark caves of depression and the sky-reaching highs of mania. I’ve even experienced life beyond the scope of reality during psychosis. Despite the overwhelming obstacles my mental illness presents, in a way I’m still grateful for my psychiatric disorder because I have this wide range of emotions and experiences so I can have empathy and connect with others.